Harry Potter and the Labour Theory of Value
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.
– Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto
In this post, I noticed that Star Trek portrays the society of the future as essentially capitalist (in all but name) despite the fact that the people of the Federation have ‘Replicators’ that can summon material objects out of pure energy. Such a development of the forces of production ought to have banished scarcity of any description, thus also banishing any need for the exploitation of labour, the extraction of surplus and the existence of class, along with many other features of capitalism which persist (open or half-hidden) in the Roddenberry/Berman utopia. In short, given the technology it possesses, the Federation ought to look a lot more like ‘the Culture’ of Iain M. Banks’ (though, actually, the Culture is as much a liberal vision as it is socialist or anarchist… with its dependence upon the benevolent dictatorship of super-smart AIs and its liberal imperialism… but that’s a different essay).
There is a similar problem for the ‘wizarding world’ of Harry Potter, for all Rowling’s hasty and hamfisted improvisations about it being impossible to magic-up food. We know that magic allows wizards to transform goblets into rats. Why then do 11yr old wizards, preparing for their first year at Hogwarts, have to go to Diagon Alley and buy rats (or cats or toads or cutsey owls) from a shop? In a world where magic washes the dishes, there can be no need for labour.
If one can make things without labour, why labour? Why produce, distribute and exchange? Why teach? Why make or do anything?
Labour – making things, doing things, thus changing your environment – is perhaps the most essential aspect of human nature. In the wizarding world, this essential human quality is degraded and potentially denied. Maybe this is why so many of the inhabitants of the wizarding world seem to empty and sterile and dull… they are deprived of any real meaning and content to their activity as human beings.
Yes, I know it takes a lot of work to make a potion in Professor Snape’s class… but the question remains: why not just magic-up a potion from thin air? Or just magic-up the desired effect of the potion? Is this impossible? Okay… then the immediate next question is: why? The wizards can magic-up light from nowhere by just muttering “lumos”. Light is material, remember? Why is this material summonable ex nihilo while others are not?
The cynical answer is to do with J. K. Rowling being a lazy hack.
The cuddly answer is to do with it just being a bit of fun for kids (okay, fine… but somebody please remind Rowling, yes?)
The interesting answer is that there is no answer and cannot be. In a world in which magic is possible, nothing could ever really make any kind of practical sense. Such a world would be slippery to the point of being uninhabitable. That’s the tautological and anthropic (and true) reason why magic isn’t real. Any world that could produce real magic, couldn’t actually be a coherent world capable of processes like, say, evolution. Magic isn’t real because it isn’t… and any world in which it was wouldn’t produce people who could even ask the question.
Less cosmically, the whole concept of rules and cheating becomes meaningless in a wizarding world. Take Quidditch. Wherein lies the skill that makes a Seeker? How exactly does one exercise prowess on a broomstick? You don’t pedal it. It doesn’t move by physical laws. You don’t have to know about aerodynamics. Aerodynamic laws would make it plummet to the ground immediately. Your ability to be a great Seeker seems, in Rowling’s world, to stem from two factors: whether you have it in your blood and how expensive your broom is. Harry is a great Seeker because his Dad was (yes, a fucking family of tedious jocks – I know the types) and because various fawning adults keep giving him expensive brooms (spoiled little teacher’s pet).
But this leads to the question of why is one brand of broomstick better than another? What are the qualities of the expensive one that make it better than the cheap one? It can’t be anything technical, since there’s no technique anywhere to be seen. They’re not ‘operated’; they’re sat on and commanded. Moreover, it can’t be to do with the quality of their design or construction, because their flying abilities do not stem from thence. They’re not like machines, i.e. efficient to the extent that they are well designed and constructed to obey and exploit the physical laws of the universe in the performance of certain tasks. They fly because they’re magic. Magic, by definition, is the breaking of the physical rules. Why cannot a cheap broom be endowed with greater magical properties than a pricey one? Just twiddle your wand and impart some extra magic to the budget model!
I expect something like that would be considered to be in some way ‘cheating’… like when Hermione thinks Harry has given Ron the luck potion just before the big match. But what can ‘cheating’ possibly mean in this context? Ron’s ‘cheating’ because he’s taken a luck potion? But isn’t that kind of ‘cheating’ THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT of potions? Of all magic? Isn’t Qudditch itself ALREADY ENTIRELY DEPENDENT upon such magical cheats? Magic broomsticks, for instance? Magical being-good-at-Qudditch-family-blood? Magic flying balls with wings?
And if rules and cheating are meaningless, why have rules at school? Why have school? Why learn? Take a potion instead! Why frown on those rule-breakers like Voldemort? Why work the long way round for anything? Why, as I was asking before, labour?
People do seem to work in Potter’s world. They have jobs working for banks. Mums do housework. And so on.
Incidentally… Mrs Weasley washes the dishes… by casting a spell that makes them wash themselves. Okay. But where do the dishes come from? Are they magicked into existence? Or are they physically produced, the way dishes are in our world? Does that mean there are factories with people doing physical productive labour, despite having magic wands in their pockets? In fact, we know that there are workplaces in Potterland, though they seem to be the kind where middle-class professions are pursued. Teaching. Banking. Ministerial bureaucracy. Etc. Or they tend to be small businesses. Petit bourgeois traders abound, with a panoply of pubs and shops. We do see some people in lower status jobs. There’s a moronic bus conductor who later turns to evil. Hagrid is a gamekeeper. But notice something. Even the lower status jobs aren’t about manufacturing. The only people in the stories who actually seem to make anything are… yes, you’re ahead of me… the Elves. And they’re non-human slaves. In other words, working-class productive industry has been, to a large extent, edited out of the picture… just way money has been edited out of Trek.
The answer to the question ‘why work in a world where work is not needed’ is that, in Potterland, work that is directly productive seems to either not happen at all, or to happen off stage. It’s hidden. This is essentially because the necessity of productive work is being implicitly denied. The answer is a denial of the premises of the question. The only kind of work that is acknowledged and praised is distributive, bureaucratic or academic. The need for production is endlessly deferred, like a dreaded chore.
And yet there is wealth. There are commodities. There is even conspicuous consumption… though it is viewed with a certain distaste, some of the time. The emphasis upon the quality (expensiveness) of things like Harry’s Quidditch kit clashes markedly with the professed moral disapproval of material wealth in the stories. Draco Malfoy is constantly depicted as a despicable little shit precisely because he thinks he (or rather his father’s money) can buy status, success, respect, power, etc… and yet Harry is also wealthy and also gets loads of unearned help. He wins using a sooper-dooper broom and that’s dandy. Draco tries the same and we’re meant to hate him. The difference appears to lie in their social class. Harry is a nice, middle class boy. Draco is an aristo. The implication is that Harry’s money was earned by his parents (though not through production, natch) whereas Malfoy Snr’s was inherited.
There are few examples of Harry using his stash of gold in Gringotts to benefit others, or even to benefit himself. The nicest is in the first book, when he buys the entire sweet trolley for him and Ron to share, simply because Ron doesn’t seem enthusiastic about his sandwiches. He gives away his prize money from the whole Goblet of Fire clusterfuck… but he does this because he feels that the money is tainted (by having been earned?). It’s telling that Fred and George use this money to become shopkeepers, hence the book’s approval. In short – the validity of using money to gain advantage is smiled upon only when the money has been not inherited, not generated by finance, not directly earned through work, but used in or created through small-scale enterprise and initiative… the petty bourgeois ideal. Ironic, given what BIG business Potter became.
Actually, there are creatures in the stories who make things – the Goblins – but their productive activity seems to be entirely in the past. They are said to have a peculiar and inhuman view of property relations. To them, the person who makes something, owns it. Quelle horreur! They don’t consider that somebody owns something just because they paid for it. Now, can you imagine anything more threatening to the middle-class, petit bourgeois world (wizarding or otherwise) than doubts about the validity of property based on payment rather than production? Essentially, what the Goblins doubt is the whole concept of the commodity. And the commodity form is the basis of bourgeois society.
And yet, these days, the Goblins are not productive workers but bankers. They are presented as ruthless, acquisitive, greedy little hoarders. Their near-communistic failure to understand and appreciate the human truth of the commodity form doesn’t translate into a refusal to engage with money… indeed, if money is, as Marx said, the ‘universal equivalent’, then this makes a strangely perverse kind of sense. If the Goblins do not comprehend the nature of the commodity (i.e. the concept of the exchange of value) then they see the world of commodities from an – as it were – money’s eye view. Money is fundamentally unreal. It is the commodity that stands in for all others, that can represent all others, that can be equivalent to all others. It undermines the reality of distinctions between commodities. From the point of view of money (so to speak) all commodities are the same… so the idea of exchanging one for another looks meaningless, irrational, even insane.
However, I think Rowling’s reasoning is cruder than this. I think hers is a classic, confused, petit bourgeois distrust of ‘finance’ as being, in some way, conspiratorial… while also attributing an unhealthy cast to any failure to understand and embrace the eternal validity of trade. It’s interesting. I seem to recall another group of people – real people in history, I mean – who were accused, nonsensically, of being both communists and conspiratorial capitalists and bankers. It’s worth remembering that, to the extent that it was a mass movement, fascism was always a movement mainly of the middle classes and petit bourgeoisie. Hitler had good machiavellian reasons to target Jews – he could sell them to disaffected workers as evil capitalists and to irritated businessmen as evil Marxists – but he genuinely believed his own vile piffle… and his vile piffle was heavily influenced by classic middle class / petit bourgeois distrust of financiers and bankers and bigshots. The European petit bourgeois distaste for finance goes all the way back to the idea of moneylending and usury as a kind of unnatural procreation (money auto-breeds)… and the association of this kind of thing with Jews goes right back too.
This is a bit of a tangent… so let’s loop back to what we were talking about earlier: the inconsistent but unavoidable way that things in the Potterverse seem to acquire value literally by magic. If we take ‘magic’, in Rowling’s model, to be equivalent to what Marx called use value (i.e. the actual ability of the commodity to satisfy some need or desire) then, in the wizarding world, value ceases to have its basis in physicality and becomes something idealist rather than materialist, something that humans can imagine into existence, that they can create and confer at will out of thin air. Use value collapses into a blobby sameness with what Marx called exchange value (i.e. the quantity of value imparted to the commodity by humans) except for one vital distinction. For Marx, exhange value was created through labour; it was the amount of socially necessary labour time that went into the creation of the commodity. In the wizarding world, labour is unnecessary and nobody is ever seen doing any productive labour… or the place of productive labour is taken by magic wand waggling. Exchange value vanishes into use value and use value is magically generated. Labour gets no look in.
If the Goblins are the guardians of money, they become the arch-representatives of exchange as a magical process. (Marx, by the way, was profoundly hostile to the commodity form, of which money is the ultimate example, precisely because it is so immaterial, so unreal, so anti-sensual, so ‘magical’.) This is probably why the Goblins no longer produce anything, despite once having been makers of artefacts. Aside from the way Rowling draws on old petit bourgeois anxieties about ‘big finance’, it’s probably why they also have this threatening lack of comprehension of the validity of exchange.
In other words, Harry Potter is bourgeois to the core. It’s central premise – of a world which has commodities that are bought and sold for money after their one value (utility) is created out of nothing without the involvement of work – is essentially bourgeois. It denies the role of labour in the creation of value, thus degrading humanity by removing their essential nature as productive creatures. It sees value as one blob – utility – that comes from needs externalised rather than work crystallised. It treats the commodity form as eternal and squares the circle of the immateriality of the commodity – especially money – by treating all value as immaterial. It fetishizes commodities (swanky broomsticks, invisibility cloaks, etc.) while editing labour out of the picture, or showing it only as either willing serfdom (the elves) or as petit bourgeois enterprise (Diagon Alley) or middle class professional activity (everyone else). It recycles old shopkeeper fears and prejudices about finance and aristocracy.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity at the heart of all this. What’s missing is an awareness of humans as, essentially and fundamentally, producers rather than simply ‘actors’. Arguably, this same mistake is at the heart of many reactionary views of the world, including the bourgeois economic theories that the metaphysics of the wizarding world mirror so amusingly.
The serious point here, the thing that should worry us, is not that Harry Potter is reactionary… it’s that bourgeois economics is based fundamentally on magical thinking. In this worldview, advantage and success and moral superiority flow from utility, which comes from the conjuring skill of the economic actor… from the ‘wealth creator’, you could say. It doesn’t make any difference that economic structures like that would actually be as impossible as natural selection in a world where magic was real. For capitalism, economic miracles seem to be just that: miracles.
February 25, 2013 @ 4:25 pm
I mostly agree with your analysis, however, I think the argument somewhat fails in considering what magic "is" in most fantasy contexts.
Generally speaking Magic isn't considered to be without rules (even in something like Harry Potter) but rather it follows alternate rules. (often ones that makes a certain amount of symbolic sense but basically no physical or mathematical sense) so in most cases magic isn't production without labour, rather it is an alternate production method. (that, depending on how deeply it has been thought about, may be more or less effective than doing it the regular way)
February 25, 2013 @ 10:54 pm
Thanks for reading, and for the comment.
Yeah, if I were writing this now I'd do it differently, with better (more informed) things to say about the rules of magic.
September 4, 2013 @ 3:30 pm
Hi, I just discovered this blog through Philip Sandifer's… you have some interesting stuff here and I look forward to reading more.
I don't have anything hugely constructive to add here, your analysis is very interesting and makes a certain amount of sense – though arilou-skiff's comment above makes a valid point. I would like to add, however, that I don't think Rowling's Wizarding World was ever meant to be considered as something entirely self-contained, it seems to me a society constructed on the fringes of the 'Muggle' world, interacting with it on a daily basis. Presumably that's where the dishes and so on come from – the Wizarding World depends upon the Muggle world for mundane production. But then, that still renders much of the Wizards/Witches' activity meaningless, so the truth – as you say – is really just that JK Rowling didn't bother to think it all through.
Cheers, and I look forward to wading through your other posts!
September 4, 2013 @ 3:50 pm
Thanks for reading. Yeah, I agree with arilou-skiff that what I wrote above doesn't really take into account the 'rules of magic'. I know a bit more about that now (partly owing to Dr Sandifer!) and would write the article differently today. Hope you enjoy the rest of the blog.
October 4, 2013 @ 9:31 am
I think there is one main issue with all of this, and that is, at least in my view, that magic is not done without effort. In the potterworld (at least I think) it takes a great deal of skill and (I guess you can call it) physical effort to make a spell work. Sure lumos is an easyish spell to do, but you still need to learn it the hard way and it drains on you if you use it. Probably creating physical objects would cause a constant strain in you and so making plates to eat from would just be to much effort for anyone to sustain. So there is value in material possesions and creations just like in the real world. As for quiddich, well to make a great broomstick it probably requires a great spell/charm that is probably difficult to perform and learn.
March 24, 2014 @ 12:10 am
"There is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity at the heart of all this. What's missing is an awareness of humans as, essentially and fundamentally, producers rather than simply 'actors'. "
Are people who aren't able to produce anything [other than the biological basics – CO2 and waste], then still human?
Bluntly, how does this theory apply to disabled people? Specifically, someone unable to be a 'producer' on the level that people outside themself (gender neutral singular, not a typo) would consider significant? (Since there are of course plenty of disabled people who are 'producers' – but not everyone can be.)
March 24, 2014 @ 3:03 am
I'm increasingly embarassed by the crudeness of this article.
You are, of course, quite right to raise this issue. I should have specifically widened the sense of 'production' to include all sorts of activities other than physically 'making things'. People who can't physically make any stuff at all (including any services) are still producers in that they produce relations, ideas, speech, and thus social life, and thus (in our system) capital, etc. If our system considers this insignificant then that shows its own ruthles focus on commodification.
This tends to undermine the idea behind this essay, which rests on a – it seems to me now – somewhat crude idea of social production.
That said, I still think there are problems worth exploring with Rowling's picture of production and action. But I need to do better. Or someone does.